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Manufacturers offer exterior columns in a surprising array of traditional and contemporary materials.

Click here for suppliers of architecturally correct columns

By Nicole V. Gagné

To simulate limestone for the facade of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, NV, Melton Classics, Inc., created these elaborately textured GFRC columns, along with the FRP cornice and cast-stone balustrade. Photo: courtesy of Melton Classics

Doric, Tuscan, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite. The Classical orders of columns have been enshrined in architectural design since the days of ancient Greece, although their use can be traced back even further, to the Egyptian architect Imhotep in 2600 B.C., who had the surfaces of stone columns carved to resemble bundled reeds, and beyond. The grandeur, solidity and beauty of columns have been design fundamentals throughout human history, and they show no signs of fading in the 21st century, least of all in commercial and institutional settings.

The revival of Classicism as an architectural language has meant a resurgence and revitalization in the manufacture of columns. For this survey article, we’ve set aside the vast topic of wood columns and narrowed our focus to suppliers of exterior columns in stone, cast stone, fiberglass and other composites. These firms produce columns in all orders; note too that all are manufacturers and remain uninvolved in column installation. What follows is an outline of five leading companies and the unique products they offer.

Carved Stone
Two of North America’s most respected suppliers of cut- and carved-stone columns are Bybee Stone Co., Inc., of Bloomington, IN, and the Canadian firm Traditional Cut Stone, Ltd. (TCS), of Mississauga, Ontario. At both concerns, Indiana limestone is the material of choice. Bybee, founded in 1979, works exclusively in this popular stone; TCS, in business since 1998, also supplies columns in sandstone or marble, but the bulk of its production also relies upon Indiana limestone.

“Limestone is the most widely used dimensional stone in North America,” notes TCS co-founder Richard Carbino, “and architects specify Indiana limestone the most.” Both Bybee and TCS eschew stock columns and work exclusively on custom projects.

Completed in 2006, the Neoclassical-inspired Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, TN, is home to the Nashville Symphony, which performs over 100 concert events every season. It’s also home to cladding, columns and capitals in Indiana limestone, supplied by Bybee Stone Co., Inc. Six 32-ft.-tall columns, each weighing just over 62,500 lbs., adorn its main entrance. Photo: courtesy of Bybee Stone Co., Inc.

Originally a specialist in restoration projects, Bybee has changed over the decades along with its market, and today, according to Jeff Chitwood, the firm’s chief estimator and contracts manager, Bybee’s projects are “about 75 percent new construction and 25 percent restoration. There’s a lot of new construction going on, which uses columns.” Most of these new-construction clients are institutional, he adds. “We do probably only about 15 percent residential; most of our work, 65 percent or so, is colleges and universities – they’re looking to attract top students, and one of the ways they can do that is with timeless buildings.”

Carbino can also attest to a similar growth in the new-construction market for TCS. “Some years it would be 60 percent restoration; other years, 20 percent. But generally speaking, restoration is not the bulk of our work over a year,” he says, noting that most of TCS’s columns are purchased by homeowners. “I would say it’s about 80 to 90 percent residential as opposed to commercial. We do a lot of work for what we call museum-style homes and large mansions.”

With both firms, the determining factors for cost are the column’s size and style. “The three basic orders are Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, but there are several different orders of columns, and the more complex its design, the more labor hours are involved, and so the cost goes up accordingly,” says Chitwood. “But the size is a primary consideration. Some of the smaller columns--maybe a small colonnade, where the columns themselves are around 8 ft. tall--will go anywhere from maybe $1,500 for a single column to, well, we’ve actually had a project where a single column was worth $42,000. The longest block of limestone I’ve ever seen was about 17½ ft., and that’s about as wide as our lathe will open. With the giant order columns that we did for the project at Market Square in Washington, DC, I think the drums were about 6x6x5½ ft. The bases on those columns were somewhere around 7 ft. 4 ins.”

Visitors to the Poland Branch Library in Poland, OH, are greeted by Colossal Greek Doric columns from Chadsworth Inc. These imposing columns, fabricated in fiberglass, were made with a filament-winding process that comes from the fabrication of rocket and missile cases. Photo: courtesy of Chadsworth Inc.

Carbino details some of the additional complexities of producing oversized columns. “If you’re making, say, a 20-ft. column, there are a couple of lathes in North America that can probably turn something like that, but usually it’s a nightmare, so you’ll want to break it into pieces. And when you split a column shaft into pieces, it always has to be an odd number--three, five, seven or nine--so that your eye doesn’t go to the center joint.” As building codes vary nationwide, so does the necessity for an additional support within stone columns. “In some areas. it’s code for the columns to have steel reinforcement going through them,” Chitwood observes. “We either make column wraps in that instance or actually core them so they can be slipped over the top of tube steel.

“Where we are in Canada, you don’t have to, but in Florida and in California, it’s legislated that you have to have a steel column,” Carbino points out. “A lot of people will split the column down the height and then put the two pieces back together, but whenever possible, we prefer to core through the column and slide it over the steel. It looks nicest and you don’t see any joints.”

Of course, both firms take pride in the extraordinary longevity of their products. “No one really asks for a warranty,” says Carbino. “As long as the column fits, it’s fine.” “There are hundreds of structures 2,000 years old, which have stone columns that are still intact,” adds Chitwood. “In general, the only things that ruin them are either vandalism or war. If they’re installed properly and they’re level, they’ll be there for a while!”

The North Carolina Appraisal Board, located in Raleigh, NC, licenses and certifies real estate appraisers for the state; it’s also a showcase for Timeless Architectural Reproductions, Inc., with its quartet of lofty columns supporting a majestic portico. Photo: courtesy of Timeless Architectural Reproductions, Inc.

Cast Stone, Fiberglass & Composite
Melton Classics of Lawrenceville, GA, founded in 1994, offers standard and custom handcrafted columns in a variety of materials, including a cast stone it calls MeltonStone. This is an attractive and economical alternative to natural stone columns that comes with a one-year warranty. The column shafts are dry-tamp manufactured, after the standards of the Cast Stone Institute, and provide the familiar look and durability of natural stone. Made in one-piece shafts or shafts in halves and sections to surround steel supports, they’re also available in stacked sections that re-create the look of ancient classical columns.

Melton Classics also produces DuraClassic poly-marble columns, cast from fiber-reinforced polyester resin-marble compound, which are available with limited lifetime warranties. Melton’s MarbleTex columns, made of marble-polymer composition, use an exclusive centrifugal casting process that permits these synthetic stone column shafts to be manufactured in one load-bearing seamless unit, thus simplifying installation. Like the firm’s cast-stone columns, these are also offered with a one-year warranty.

Melton’s other notable non-wood column lines include FiberCrete columns in glass-fiber reinforced cement (GFRC) with a one-year warranty, and FiberWound Classic columns of load-bearing fiberglass (also with full-depth ionic flutes in the FiberFlute Classic line), with a limited lifetime warranty.

The South is home to two other celebrated manufacturers of quality fiberglass and composite columns: Chadsworth Inc. of Wilmington, NC, founded in 1987, and Timeless Architectural Reproductions, Inc., of Cumming, GA, launched in 1996. Both offer standard and custom lines of columns in fiberglass and polyester resin.

Architectural ornament from Traditional Cut Stone begins life as a hand-drawn rendering that is turned into a computer-generated drawing, from which a three-dimensional clay model is hand sculpted. Then the clay is used to create a plaster cast that provides an accurate and inflexible model, from which the final stone carving is produced. The result is a work of art, like this handsome Corinthian capital in French limestone. Photo: courtesy of Traditional Cut Stone, Ltd.

“The majority of the work is being done in standard sizes,” says Danny Gonzales, national sales manager for Timeless. “We have a lot of custom capability, but it’s a smaller percentage, I’d guess maybe 15 percent.” Jeffrey L. Davis, CEO of Chadsworth, has experienced greater variety in the market. “We’re moving into our third decade now, and it’s fluctuated over the years,” he says. “When interest rates are low and the construction market is on a rise, we sell more of the standard mass-produced columns. When the economy is in a downturn, projects with higher budgets come around and we do more custom work.”

Cost is clearly the major consideration in the popularity of standard-design columns. “If your project calls for a custom profile but wood is not an option, we can create a new PolyStone mold to your exact specifications, giving you the desired profile with all the benefits of the material,” says Davis. “Keep in mind that creating these custom molds is costly, anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000, depending on the size and design required. This is in addition to the subsequent unit cost. If it’s a large job, say, 30 units, the price will be spread out among each column and may indeed be cost effective. On the other hand, if you can incorporate one of our stock products into your project, your bottom line will be much lower.”

Timeless describes a similar range of costs. “The FRP [fiberglass-reinforced-polymer] columns, based on size and length, will run anywhere from $100 all the way up to $8,000 or $9,000,” Gonzales explains. “There are just so many different options. You can get them smooth. You can get them fluted, with a Tuscan cap or a Corinthian cap. We’re also beginning to see a movement toward square columns across the country, in lower- and upper-end homes. They give the front elevation a different aesthetic look, a dimensional change. On certain style houses, a square column looks better aesthetically than a round column does.”

Chadsworth takes pride in its innovations in column manufacture. “We have four different kinds of fiberglass columns--filament wound, resin infused, chopped or sprayed up and spun cast,” says Davis. “Filament-wound columns are great when you need a load-bearing capacity. When you touch them or rap on them, however, they sound hollow, so what I like to do with those is fill them up with sand or a sand-vermiculite mixture. You think of a column as holding up a lot of weight, so you don’t want it to sound as if it couldn’t hold up anything. The true innovation would be the PolyStone, or spun-cast, column. We developed this line back in 1992, the result of many years of research and development, and it can hold detail a lot better and feels a lot thicker.”

Chadsworth’s fiberglass columns, according to Davis, are used mostly in new construction. “But we also do a big business in replacing wood columns,” he says. “People don’t understand that a wood column must be maintained, and when they buy an old house and it has a rotting wood column, the first thing they think is, ‘I don’t want to have that happen again,’ so they replace it with an FRP column.”

Most of Chadsworth’s new-construction clients are institutions. “We sell massive amounts of them for large projects such as schools,” Davis says. The same holds true for Timeless. “New construction is a very large percent," Gonzales explains. "I’d say at least 80. And in new construction, for us right now, we’re seeing a big push in commercial projects--hospitality, retail, mixed use, things of that nature; the church market as well. I think it’s beginning to overtake the residential.”

Both firms emphasize the load-bearing capacities of their fiberglass and composite columns. “When I’m selling, I like to get people to use it as a load-bearing piece,” says Davis. “But most people get nervous with it and want to go ahead and put something in the inside, just to be on the safe side. On my own house, I did not. I used both filament-wound and FRP columns, and they hold my whole top floor. Of course, if the column is split so it can go around something, it loses its load-bearing ability, and your warranty would not hold as a load-bearing member. In the fiberglass line, everything has a lifetime warranty, as long as the same user is in the same house.” Gonzales acknowledges the strength of Timeless’s FRP columns. “They have incredible load-bearing capabilities," he says. "They’re also impervious to weather, rot and insects-- which makes them ideal for exterior applications--and come with a lifetime warranty. As long as they’re installed correctly, as per our instructions, then these products will be warranted for life.”


Click here for suppliers of architecturally correct columns